s
s
Sections
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone

<i>"Big Brother is watching you."

-#8212; From "1984," the George Orwell novel published in 1949.</i><br>

Until last week, I tried to pretend that my thermostat wasn't spying on me.

But the swarm of news and commentary about the sale of Nest Labs to Google left me with nowhere to hide. The page-one headline in The Press Democrat posed the ominous question of the day: "Google skulking into our homes?"

In a storm of indignation, I suppose I should now tear my Nest thermostat from the wall and return the old, ugly, confusing device that lived there for many years.

But it turns out I like my new "learning thermostat." Its design is beautiful and intuitive. It adapts to my schedule and monitors my energy consumption. It can be turned up or down from anywhere with a couple of touches of my iPhone.

It is, in a word, cool -#8212; one of those inventions that causes us to wonder how we lived for so many years with devices that were so primitive.

This is the challenge, isn't it? In the Information Age, we seek to embrace the wonders, conveniences and economic advantages of new technology without surrendering to corporations and governments the power to gather information about every aspect of our lives.

The Nest, after all, is not the first potential intrusion on our privacy. In a few short years, we have welcomed into our home all kinds of devices that connect to the Internet -#8212; computers, tablets, smartphones, printers, TV receivers, appliances and more. Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Pandora -#8212; countless companies big and small are making a good living by monitoring our shopping and consumption habits.

They say they're just being helpful -#8212; and often they are.

What we know is that this new technology is incredibly powerful. Someone out there knows where we are, who we call, what we buy, what movies we watch, what songs we listen to.

And history isn't much help teaching us how to control this technology. In short, we've never been here before.

In 2010, two former engineers at Apple -#8212; where they helped create the iPod -#8212; started a new company to design and market user-friendly, Internet-connected thermostats (and more recently, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors).

Last week, they sold their new company to Google for $3.2 billion.

Two days later, page one of the New York Times served up two stories that remind us why Internet privacy is such a big concern.

The first disclosed that the National Security Agency has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world, software useful for both surveillance and for cyber-attacks. In some cases, the story said, secret technology was used to insert the software into computers that aren't even connected to the Internet.

The second story outlined President Barack Obama's plans to impose new limits on government spying.

Do we trust governments and corporations to always look out for our best interests? Well, no. It's hard to even ask the question and keep a straight face.

Even when they mean well, recent history has demonstrated that politicians and governments are ill-equipped to understand and keep pace with rapid change. Consider the website created to support the Affordable Care Act. Consider the state of California's serial misadventures in computer systems.

Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

Everything we know about the nature of powerful organizations suggests they will find these new technologies irresistible. Sometimes, they will use them with what we judge to be the best of intentions, and sometimes, they won't.

So, as citizens and consumers, what are we to do?

I think the short answer is, we're going to do the best we can.

We'll push back when we find companies reaching for information we don't want to share. We'll invoke security measures that provide the protections we think are necessary. We'll hope that politicians inform themselves about these new technologies and summon the insight and courage to provide safeguards against abuses.

Some of us will decide to leave the grid, placing privacy before everything else. But that becomes a less and less practical alternative for anyone who wants to remain connected to the world around them. In ways we couldn't imagine two decades ago, technology touches every aspect of our lives.

Using the Internet, we share information, shop, conduct research, save and invest, pay bills, consume news, play music and videos, organize and store data and perform countless other tasks. We even signal our thermostats to turn on the heat 30 minutes before we arrive at our homes.

Google, which now owns a connection to the thermostat in my living room, famously began its existence 16 years ago with a promise to "do no evil." We shall see.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping an eye on my thermostat.

Or is it the other way around?

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>

Show Comment